Somerset's otters and rare flowers granted reprieve: Feasibility study finds pounds 20m boating circuit plan 'not viable'

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The Independent Online
ONE OF EUROPE'S most environmentally-sensitive wetland areas, the Somerset Levels, is to be spared a 100- mile boating circuit to rival the Norfolk Broads.

Experts conducting an pounds 80,000 feasibility study have warned that the pounds 20m scheme, promoted by a consortium of local authorities, would never pay its way. It is expected to be quietly shelved later next month. A spokesman for Somerset County Council, a senior consortium member, said yesterday: 'Quite clearly the authority isn't going to shove public money into a scheme which is not going to have a winning formula.'

A key consideration was evidence submitted to the consortium's consultants, Oakwood Environmental, that boating holidays had declined by a third, from a peak of 600,000 in 1978-79. The 22-year project to promote the West Country's sagging tourist trade involved building a pounds 7.1m barrage across the tidal Parrett river at the port of Dunball. This would, in theory, have enabled a fleet of electric cabin cruisers to patrol a waterway network, including three rivers and the 18th-century waterway King Sedgemoor's Drain.

Conservationists were concerned about the potential impact across 800 square miles of finely-tuned wilderness containing rare flora meadows and a haven for wading birds. They expressed alarm for the safety of a new generation of otters in the northern Levels, and for the future of traditional industries like elver fishing, which depends on regular tidal flow on rivers.

Roger Martin, director of the Somerset Trust for Nature Conservation, said yesterday: 'Our own line had always been that the project stands or falls on environmental grounds. It seemed thoroughly inappropriate and we're very pleased to see it . . . torpedoed.'

The scheme was considered a natural extension of the modernisation, for pleasure boating, of a 14-mile stretch of the Bridgwater-Taunton canal, including the building of a marina and 100-bed hotel. Tourists were to be 'encouraged to pass through environmentally sensitive areas' under controlled conditions.

Humphrey Temperley, chairman-designate of Somerset County Council's environment committee and part of the Liberal Democrat group that swept the Tories from power in this month's local elections, said yesterday that the emphasis would now be shifted to 'green' tourism on the Somerset Levels.

'The potential effect on an internationally-protected area like this was of such magnitude that the project wouldn't have obtained the necessary consent anyway,' he said. 'What's needed now is a major rethink . . . there's a real prospect, with agriculture declining, of farmers in the area taking their living from growing wildlife instead of crops. The aim must be to make the best of what we've got, preserving the Levels for future generations and making a reasonable living in the meantime.'

Supporters of the boating circuit, such as Des Roach, a Tory county councillor and former chairman of Somerset's economic development committee, now concede that their vision of a Somerset Broads is dead. Mr Roach, who once promoted a scheme for installing plastic dinosaurs near the Cheddar Gorge, said yesterday: 'On the face of it it looked good but if it's not viable it's not viable . . .'

(Photograph omitted)